The music I use to get my mind in gear for writing.
It’s about music, so this blog post is going to be slightly more self-indulgent than usual. OK, more than slightly. Probably because I’ve reached the end of my ‘Music To Write Words By’ Spotify playlist series, I’m thinking a lot about the music I listen to when I write.
In the kitchen and the car, I’ll be nodding my head to some old-school indie/shoegaze/punk (gotta love BBC 6 Music). Or maybe Daft Punk, Deadmau5 or Porter Robinson (if my kids are around). But when I’m at my desk to write, I’m a big fan of instrumental ambient techno, film soundtracks and other interesting electronica or soundscape style music.
Silence is fine. In fact, silence is very good indeed for a lot of people. The lack of any external distraction is a welcome thing and can free the workings of the mind so you get into the zone and don’t notice time passing. At least, until the crazy dog next door starts barking. Or the drill starts. Or the kids start screaming, the buses chug by the window or the gang of lads shout their conversations outside the bar/café/betting shop in the street.
Silence or no silence, I usually find I write best when I slip on the headphones and get into the music. It’s a kind of zone in/zone out experience. The repeated rhythms, layered sounds and melodies all seem to help the brain tick over and focus.
Sometimes the music is very mellow and other times quite intense. Both can have the same effect. Maybe it’s the structures, or a certain intensity of sounds that help the brain get into a flow state.
In this blog post by Benjamin P Hardy, (after loads about his morning schedule) he mentions something called ‘Brain Music’.
He talks about psychologist Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis’ book ‘On Repeat: How Music Plays the Mind‘ and how listening to music on repeat helps the mind to focus. The technique is also used by WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg and authors Ryan Holiday and Tim Ferriss. The process can let your mind feel hypnotised, stopping your thoughts from wandering and blocking distractions.
My interest was particularly grabbed by Benjamin’s list towards the end of the article of his favourite music to listen to. There were lots of artists that I found myself mentally putting ticks next to. Especially Tycho – as he says, you should listen to a whole album, not just one track. And he gets extra geek points for mentioning Luke Abbott.
I was glad to see it wasn’t just me who obsesses a bit over listening to music while I write. OK, so I don’t often listen to one song on repeat (except for one time recently with ‘Polarlicht’ by Xmal Deutschland – that got a bit weird). But a lot of what I listen to is of the same vibe.
I use ‘vibe’ in the broadest sense – it can mean anything from Orbital to μ-Ziq, or Nils Frahm to Moderat. It’s not everything that the various artists have ever recorded, but certain tracks that stand out and, um, strike a chord.
Do you have a playlist that you write to?
My ‘writing’ playlist is pretty long – 223 tracks as I we speak, covering 18 hours and 53 minutes. No doubt it will continue to grow as I discover new artists and new tunes. I have six or eight tracks by some artists, but just one or two by others. Sometimes I’ll branch off and go back to listening to the whole album if I hear a track by a particular artist that feels right for the morning.
But mostly I mix it up. I simply find interesting instrumental electronic and soundtrack-style music the best to listen to while writing. Right now, I’m listening to Autechre and something by composer Andrew Heath will follow it.
But what if I had to single out seven artists that I find particularly great to listen to? That’s tough, but I’m going to try…
You really can’t go wrong with Boards Of Canada. From the first track on their 1998 album ‘Music Has the Right To Children’ to the final track ‘Semena Mertvykh’ on their most recent album ‘Tomorrow’s Harvest’, almost their entire output seems designed to dissolve into your mind and send it on a path to deep thought. Profound, atmospheric and playful all at the same time.
The ex-Pop Will Eat Itself front man is on this list entirely because I have fallen in love with his soundtrack to the film ‘Moon’. Sinister, moving, with lots of subtle changes of pace and tone, the soundtrack is the perfect accompaniment to a strange and darkly humorous movie. Word also has to go out for his other amazing soundtracks to the films ‘Pi’, ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Requiem For A Dream’ among others. They are all fantastic, dark and disturbing, but I just wouldn’t be able to write to them.
Standout track: ‘We’re Going Home’.
I got completely lost in his albums ‘Sea Island’ and ‘Plume’. Mining from the same seam as Boards Of Canada, but even more contemplative, Loscil is seriously under-appreciated.
Standout track: ‘In Threes’
I’m a sucker for weird sci-fi, and this is another composer on this list because of one film soundtrack. Cliff Martinez’s music for the 2002 version of ‘Solaris’ caught me in a semi-dream when I was ill with ‘flu and left the DVD menu playing on repeat. I was hooked. Martinez said: “Solaris. It is one of the few soundtracks of mine that I can still stand to listen to. I also think it was a score that made the greatest contribution to the film for which it was written.”
Standout Track: ‘Wear Your Seat Belt’
For me, the king of ambient music. His ‘Lux’ album for Warp Records was 4 tracks, each around 19 minutes long, and provides the perfect backdrop to creative thought and contemplation. If you want to go deeper down the rabbit hole, try any of his ‘Ambient’ albums (some in collaboration with Harold Budd). I still need to hear his latest single-track 54-min album ‘Reflection’, something I plan to remedy tonight.
However, the album that I keep returning to is ‘Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks’ from 1983. Eno wrote it with his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois to accompany a feature-length documentary about the moon landings. It still retains a strange, floating feel.
Standout track: ‘An Ending (Ascent)’
What Ozric Tentacles did for progressive, blissed-out music in the 1980’s, Tycho is doing in the new millennium. Uplifting, melodic, thoughtful and atmospheric, Tycho’s music has evolved from a studio-based, mainly electronic sound to a complete live band feel, without losing any of its depth and subtlety.
Standout track: ‘Daydream’
I get the feeling that if Brian Eno had been born 10 years earlier in Italy and gone to classical music school, he would have been Einaudi. But Einaudi is more than just an Eno clone – he’s a composer of beautiful music that seems to show no compromise. Works that are subtle and moving, yet stoic and pure. Like Eno, he is unafraid of experimenting with collaborations, and you will often find remixes of his pieces by various electronic artists.
Standout track: ‘Fly’
But also, (whether you support Greenpeace or not) watch this incredible solo piano piece recorded on a floating stage in the Arctic with a backdrop (and background noise) of glaciers breaking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DLnhdnSUVs
This post started off as ‘5 Artists To…’ I had to expand it to 7, and still feel guilty at having left out so many: Aphex Twin, Plaid, Hidden Orchestra, Yppah, Gold Panda, Yann Tiersen, Amon Tobin, Floating Points, Nathan Fake, Bonobo… I could go on and on. They’re all good, but I had to limit myself, or we would have been here all day.
And I will put my hands up and admit this list shows a very personal view. Not everyone will enjoy this kind of music. Some people might really get into the zone by listening to doom metal or reggae. One man’s meat is another’s poison, and all that. It’s what makes the world go round. But still, it’s my blog.
If you’re curious to find out more, head over to my Spotify lists for my ideal soundtracks to get the brain working. It might be yours too!
PS: A tip – for a really zoned-out experience, simultaneously play any of the above music with the sound of rain from this website: https://rain.simplynoise.com/
Or, if you like more variety, then Noisli is great: https://www.noisli.com/
PPS: Some people get the same result by simply slipping on the headphones but not putting on any music. Have to admit, that works for me too sometimes! Is this you too?
Let me know what you think.